What I enjoyed most about this book was the strong sense of place and season - I could almost feel the clean cold of winter and the purging heat of the sauna - and the clarity and credibility of the various candidates for the "he did it" role.
The central character, Cork O'Connor, an white skinned, red haired man with a native American grandmother that seems to give him a foot in both of the communities of Iron Lake, has the makings of a tragic hero - a committed sheriff, a loving husband, a doting father who falls from grace in every way possible when disaster strikes but who remains a good man, albeit one who cheats on his wife. I could not find my way inside this man's head. He seems to be a talented and tenacious investigator but he is not gifted with insight into his own character or that of his wife. Add to this a willingness to buy into the reality of Windigoes and you have someone I found hard to believe in. He is a pizza with way too many toppings.
The book is well plotted. The twists and turns are satisfying and credible and they kept me guessing (although not always caring)
Unfortunately, Kreuger's women are almost cartoons - young, beautiful, forgiving and doomed or strong, silent, fierce but loving or confident, self-absorbed but still loving. I couldn't imagine any of them as real.
He also slaps on foreboding like plaster on a wall.
The two combined turn the death of one of the women characters into an instrument of emotional manipulation of the reader that I found myself resenting.
Perhaps it was a book of its time (first published 1999), I know the subsequent books of the series won prizes. From me this one only won a "What a pity. That was almost a really good book."
"Clean" is an excellent start to what I hope will be a long-running series.
It succeeds on many levels. It is a gripping story of a police investigation of a serial killer that draws upon familiar archetypes - a cop/consultant with a shady past and an addiction problem who has a strong, beautiful, karate black-belt partner (also with a painful past) who stands up for him because it's the right thing to do but still doesn't want him in her head - while breathing enough personality and context into them to make them feel fresh.
It skilfully builds a picture of a future Atlanta, coping with doing things manually after the Tech Wars have devastated the Western World. The ideas are seeded carefully without resorting to clumsy info-dumps.
It gives an insight into a Guild of people with "abilities" in Mindspace - telepathy, teleportation, and telekinesis - amongst other things that is original, credible, intriguing and left me hungry for more.
The prose is crisp and clear. The action scenes, including the ones requiring special powers, are exciting and fully visualised. Best of all, Alex Hughes' first-person story-telling is as compelling as any noir-fiction writer I've ever read, including Chandler. I loved that we barely get to find out the main characters name because he already knows it and seldom has to bother introducing himself. The main character is flawed in a very unglamorous way. He is often self-absorbed. He lacks social skills. He is an addict who constantly craves his poison. He is also brave and loyal and trying hard to get his shit together.
I listened to "Clean" as an audiobook. It's perfectly suited for the medium and Daniel May does a great job in giving the main character a a convincing voice.
"The Enemy", the ninth Jack Reacher book, takes us back to January 1990, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when Reacher was a Major in the Military Police.
One of the things I enjoyed about the previous book, "The Persuader" was the glimpses it gave me of who Jack Reacher was when he was in the Army. It left me hungry for more. Perhaps it had the same impact on Lee Child because "The Enemy is set entirely in Reacher's Army past.
"The Enemy" is a sort of "Origins of Wolverine" book. it deepened my understanding of how the Jack Reacher I met in the previous books came to be the way he is.
"The Enemy" explores how the US Army works via an investigation into the death of General. The plot is tight, complex and satisfying, spiced by conflicts with an asshole superior officer with an agenda and a larger mystery around a coordinated but unexplained large-scale re-assignment of Special Unit MPs.
I know nothing of the US Army other than what I've seen of their bases in Germany and the UK but I found Child's depiction of it convincing and compelling: the sheer scale of the organization as it was back then, the way bases are the same everywhere in the world, right down to the menus in the Officers' Club, the power of rank, the freedom to work the system, the complete lack of control on where and under whom you will serve.
I enjoyed seeing Reacher outside the US, in Germany (where the US bases make everything seem as close to home as possible) and France in which Reacher, son of a French woman, seems more at home than in North Carolina. I was fascinated to see how Reacher behaved with his older brother, a man who was killed in the first Jack Reacher book, "Killing Floor" and who's ghostwad evoked in the sixth book "Without Fail" when Reacher is approached by his brother's ex-girl friend.
Reacher in 1990 seemed less damaged and less lost than the Reacher in the other books. The Army and his family give him stability and a sense of purpose. It becomes clear how the loss of these things would change him for the worse.
But the 1990 Reacher is still recognisable. The things that make him scary are already present: his tendency towards violent confrontation, his inablity to let things go, his habit of using others to achieve his own agenda and his willingness to appoint himself as both judge and executioner. The things that prevent me from writing him off as a psychotic thug are also there: hisdrive to do the right thing, his willingness to take the consequences for his actions and his strong desire to keep the Army the way he thinks it should be.
"The Enemy" is a well-written period criminal investigation novel that would be attractive as a stand-alone novel. The insight's that it brings on Reacher's origins move it up into a compelling read and encourages me to thank that the Reacher novels will continue to get better, which is good news as I still have eleven more to go.
I stumbled over "The Beekeeper's Apprentice" and fell in love with it after only a few pages. As the audiobook was recorded in 2014 I thought I had discovered a hot new talent to share with the world. Then I noticed that I was reading the "20th Anniversary Edition" and realised that I was catching up with an author I should have been reading for year.
The upside of this is that there are twelve more books in the series already, so a feast lies ahead of me.
The beekeeper's apprentice of the title is Mary Russell. She is as old as the century (or at least she was when the book was written in 1994) and is looking back on her long association with Sherlock Holmes whom she first bumped into on the Sussex Downs in 1915, when she was a teenage girl recovering from a recent calamity and seeking refuge in books and long walks. Sherlock Holmes, in his fifties and allegedly retired, now lives in the country, keeping bees and writing papers on the topics such as how to disguise one's footprints.
The book spans a four-year period which lays the foundation for a long-term relationship between Russell and Holmes. During this time the two are involved in three "cases" plus a side trip to Palestine. While the cases and the means of solving them are very reminiscent of Conan Doyle's Holmes, the man himself is quite different. The Holmes Russell sees is older, more humane, and (eventually) more willing to share than his earlier self. Russell is intellect and focus, seasoned by guilt beyond her years and more than ready both to challenge and learn from Holmes. Russell and Holmes and the relationship between them are the heart of this book. The cases are there only to set that heart racing.
The pace of the book, while not as slow as the original Conan Doyle stories sometimes were, is still leisurely by modern standards. I think it is all the better for that. I liked the idea that Russell and Holmes, on a desperate search to find a missing girl, still take days to reach the scene of the crime so that they can arrive in disguise, using the right form of transport. The finally case includes a side-trip to Palestine of several weeks. It is not strictly necessary to the plot and we find out very little about the assignment that Russell and Holmes have been on but their passage through the desert is uses to season and strengthen their relationship in ways that seem authentic to me.
If you are already a fan of Holmes then this book revisits that universe in a way that invigorates and refreshes while still honouring and building on the original (Think what "Dark Knight Rises" did for Batman or what "Into Darkness" did for Star Trek). If you've never read Conan Doyle this book will still carry you along on its merits and may even tempt you to try some of the "original" material for yourself.
I suspect that this is a love/hate book. If the style of writing doesn't grip your imagination and win your heart by the end of Book 1 of the novel, then this is not for you. If, like me, you are entranced, then another eleven or so books lie in your future.
This "End of Days" tale is more fiction with science in it than classic science fiction. The focus is on the characters and the different ways in which they are broken and on the nature and impact of belief on how we see ourselves and others.
Nevertheless, there is still a good end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it thriller to keep you turning the pages and solid science to keep everything credible.
"The Rapture" felt more real to me than other "End of Days" apocalyptic nightmare novels and movies, not just because it is set in the UK but because I feel a strong affinity for Gabrielle Fox, a paralysed therapist (now there's a metaphor to conjure with), from whose point of view the story is told.
She and I share certain values and assumptions that are common amongst the Brit graduate population but which rarely surface in American fiction.She embraces atheism with a bone-deep belief that perhaps only someone raised as a Catholic can achieve. She despises Christian fundamentalism at an almost instinctive level because she views that kind of faith as pathological. She is apolitical but fundamentally distrusts politicians and authority figures, especially as she is one. She pursues a professional career because it is something she is good at but not passionate about. She is a therapist who is insightful without being empathic, who distrusts the tools and language of her trade and understands that psychiatric hospitals are funded more for their value as surrogate prisons than as places of healing.
All of this means that Gabrielle views the concept of "The Rapture" not only with disbelief but with contempt, so she makes the perfect foil for all those around her who believe the End of Days has arrived.
Gabrielle is more than a plot device. As she mourns for all that the accident that paralysed her has taken away and struggles to imagine what her life could be, she becomes the measuring stick for human hopes and fears which brings scale to the idea of what it would mean if the world didn't end but we did.
The second remarkable character in "The Rapture" is Bethany Krall, Gabrielle's teenage patient, confined to the hospital because she murdered her mother. Bethany is a wonderful creation: convincing, frightening, violent, crude, repulsive, vulnerable, damaged and fundamentally honest behind all the lies.
"The Rapture" includes both credible science and credible scientists, even if rogue scientists with access to very large helicopters are little hard to imagine
My only reservation about "The Rapture" was that Gabrielle's perspective came a little too much from her head rather than the heart but that could be because I also live in my head and I use fiction to try and find the way to my heart.
This is a book that has "MAKE ME INTO A MOVIE" written all over it. I hope, if that happens, that they'll keep it in the UK and hire a director with an atheist's heart to make it.
Three things make "Crossover" a good solid science fiction novel: an action-packed cyberpunkish plot about far future inter-stellar political and military intrigue, a willingness to explore the issues around whether an man-made soldier can also be a person and, most of all, strong female characters, especially the artificial soldier herself, Cassandra Kresnov.
Joel Shepard builds his future world with care, paying attention to history. culture, and politics and setting up conflicts that are more complex than good-guys versus bad-guys. He has created a credible, engaging universe that could be the foundation for a good series of books.
The thriller plot has some excellently executed action scenes and just enough political intrigue to vary the pace.
Yet this isn't a "Olympus Has Fallen" you have 24 hours to save the universe kind of book. It's main focus is on Cassandra Kresnov who was built to be a super-soldier but has gone AWOL to see if she can do more with her life. A lot of the novel is spent exploring what it means to be sentient but not human, to look human but to be a formidable weapon, even when unarmed. Joel Shepherd gives this debate an excellent via a gruesome scene, early in the novel, where Cassandra is treated like a thing rather than a person and subjected to unbearable cruelty. By the end of this, I had no doubt Cassandra was a person.
Cassandra is not written a human who happens to have a different biology. She is, in many ways, alien and threatening. She knows why she was built, she just doesn't believe that she has to be bound by her maker's intent. We see her as "Captain Kresnov" commanding a crew of super-soldiers, slightly less advanced than her, who she cares for and who virtually worship her. We see her as the wannabe civilian, looking for a job, going to art galleries, picking up a man, trying to build a life. we watch her build trust, suffer grief, be overwhelmed by anger and crippled by fear. We are given every opportunity to like her. The humans she interacts with are more than foils or plot devices, the SWAT squad leader and the President of the planet are drawn with precise, confident strokes that make them easy to imagine.
I found the start of the book a little slow but I suspect this was more to do with how the book was narrated. Later in the book, Dina Pearlman does an excellent job with both the dialogue (wonderful accents and distinct voices for the main characters) and with action scenes, but her reading of the early scene-setting descriptions and some of Kesnov's internal reflections is a little flat and unsympathetic. I also thought the last chapter of the book could have been omitted or given more bite. But these are small complaints. This was a book I read with pleasure, wanting to know what happened next, caring about the characters and kept interested in the diversity of the world in which the action takes place.
"Trail of Dead" is (apart from the title which I think is rather dull) is an improvement on "Dead Spots", book 1 in the series. Melissa Olson's writing is more confident and assured, the plotting is tighter and more complex and the world building is a little bit more subtle.
In "Trail of Dead" I actually started to like Scarlett Bernard and understand the impact that she has on those around her. She's come out of her "I'm doing this because it's the only thing I'm good for" trance and started to think through her life. It turns out that she's brave and, in her own way, driven by a sense of honour and a desire to help those she cares for.
Her bête noir and former mentor, now a scary bat-shit-crazy vampire is an excellent villain to his and boo at. She makes the other monsters that Scarlett works for: vampires, witches and werewolves, seem positively civilized.
The "shall I choose the gorgeous and righteous cop or the totally devoted werewolf surfer-boy" trope could have become a little tired - too Stephanie Plumb for my taste - but Olsen pulled an original plot twist that saved the day and kept everything a bit more plausible. I do wish she'd stop telling me that Jesse smells of oranges and Armani, it doesn't sound an attractive combination and it became a sort of leitmotiv that was played every time he and Scarlet were in a scene together.
The concept of a "null", the original idea around which the series is based, continues to develop at satisfying pace that shows progress but hints at more to come.
I'm confident that this will turn into a fun series. I know the third book is out but I'm waiting for the audiobook to be available.
When this book first came out, in the UK, it was called "The Visitor", which makes a whole lot of sense to me: it links to the plot, it's ambiguous about the nature and identity of the visitor and it's easy to remember. Then some editor in the US decided that it sounded too much like Science Fiction and came up with "Running Blind". I can't see any relevance to the plot and it's instantly forgettable but perhaps that's why editors don't get to write novels.
Four things dominated this novel for me: a well thought through puzzle-plot, skilfully revealed, piece by grim piece; the malicious misogyny of the killings, Child's contempt for the FBI and the satisfaction I felt when the increasingly eccentric Reacher finally gets a reality-check.
The Reacher reality-check comes at the beginning of the novel when Reacher's impromptu vigilante intervention in a protection racket gets him entangled with the local police and the FBI. In any sane world, Reacher would have finished this encounter either in prison or in a psych ward or both. Reacher sees himself as outside the law. He feels entitled to do violence in whatever he sees as a good cause. He only seems fully engaged with the people around him when he is causing mayhem. This is what makes him such a compelling character in a thriller. It's also what would get put locked up in real life. Of course, in the novel, Reacher is rescued by his lawyer girl-friend and cuts a deal that sets up the rest of the novel.
Still, I don't read Reacher for insights into real life. I read him because the plots are ingenious, because I enjoy his amoral aggression in the cause of right (usually one or more women who need to be rescued or revenged) and because, at least some of the time, I wish there really was a Reacher or two out there making things right.
In this novel, the FBI are depicted as sleazy (a female agent displaying herself to keep Reacher "in hand"), incompetent (profiling techniques that are fundamentally flawed) and more interested in taking care of their own than in getting the job done. As usual, it's lucky for them that Reacher is along to do their job for them.
The puzzle-plot in this one is truly ingenious. No, I'm not going to tell you what it is. I've seldom read a serial killer book where it was so hard to figure out HOW the killing was done. Even when Reacher helps the FBI put most of the pieces together, the answer still isn't clear. For me, this is a real strength in a thriller.
The women being killed in this book have all already been betrayed and abused by men in positions of power while they served in the Army. I was surprised and pleased to see that Child took the time to make at least some of these women real and help see the damage that had been done to them and the lives they were rebuilding. Of course this makes their deaths more poignant but it makes the manner of their deaths truly monstrous.
The prose in this novel isn't go to win any prizes. It often reads more like directions to an actor in a TV script: "He did this. Then he did that. Then he moved to the right. Then he sat down." but somehow the sparse style, written in the third-person, keeps Reacher an enigma.
By the end of the novel, Reacher has nothing left but his folding toothbrush and a desire to be somewhere else. This makes him the perfect catalyst for the next novel where a smart, violent, emotionally unavailable man is needed to thwart evil-doers. I wonder if it also makes him an archetype for a male hunger for a particular type of freedom, based on detached competency and uncompromised integrity?
The world is ending. Everyone will be dead soon. Everyone knows that. Everyone reacts to it differently.
Hank Palace, recently promoted to his dream job of homicide detective, decides to carry on investigating murders. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that it never occurs to him to stop.
His focus, his need to follow the rules, his quiet persistence in his task, affects the people around him, making them uncomfortable, or bemused, or sometimes even hopeful.
This is not a Summer Blockbuster Movie "end of the world" novel. There are no aliens, or zombies. Our hero is not trying to save the world in the next 48 Hours. He's not even trying to save himself. He just wants to do his job as well as he can.
Actually, Palace doesn't have much of a life to save. He's a loner and a misfit. Not the charismatic kind that you find in buddy-cop movies, but the slightly embarrassing to notice kind of loner that people avoid either because that kind of isolation might be contagious, or because of an Uncanny Valley Effect that says that, although Hank looks normal, there's something a little off about him that's hard to take.
On the surface, nothing much happens in this book. There is a murder and a mystery, actually more than one mystery, and love and betrayal and lots and lots of deaths but the book feels almost horrifyingly tranquil.
Ben Winters' writing is first-rate: economical, precise and quietly clever. Peter Berkrot's narration in the audiobook amplifies this by being undramatic without being flat or dull.
When I first finished the book a couple of months ago, I gave it a three star rating on goodreads.com but I couldn't bring myself to write a review. I felt as if I'd finished the book but it hadn't finished with me.
I found my mind returning to it over the following weeks and slowly articulated to myself why the book wouldn't leave me alone. It's because, without the intervention of an asteroid, everyone's world is ending. We will all be dead relatively soon (I'm fifty-seven, neither of my parents made it past sixty-nine, death's wingéd chariot is starting to tailgate me). We all know it. We all react to it differently. All that Winters' changed in his novel is that everyone is going to die at more or less the same time.
The strongest message I got from his book is that most of us get through the day because we believe there will be an infinite number of tomorrows, or at least too many to have to worry yet, and if we do get that "any day now" warning, we know that the world, and the people we care about, will go on. Which makes what happens to us today, bearable. Which takes away the need to think about why I spent today on a train for four hours to spend tomorrow in meeting with people I don't know so I can make the same journey back tomorrow night.
I'm an Atheist by conviction. I believe that done is done. I know I'm going to die. I don't believe there will be an accounting. No reward. No punishment. No anything. I thought I understood what that meant but I think I was still holding out on myself until I read Winters' book.
The people around Palace are making choices. Some of them are pursuing bucket-lists like the activities still matter to them, like goals have any meaning any more. Some are losing themselves in drink or drugs or sex or all three. Some of them are just lost, shocked, adrift, almost dead already. A few, a very few, carry on doing the things they love: making the perfect cup of coffee, or doing what it takes to solve a murder. I realize that I and the people around me, all of us, are acting out these reactions to our impending ending everyday, we just make ourselves forget about it.
Ben Winters' has taken all this "normal" getting-through-the-day behaviour and put it in a setting that makes it problematic, thereby making our seen-but-too-familiar to be noticed reactions visible.
This is what was unsettling me about the book: it was giving me a lens to see that, in many ways, the end of the world really is nigh and I'm plodding on like I don't have a choice.
Anyway, I've upgraded my goodreads rating to four stars, bought "Countdown City", book two of the trilogy and I've written this review to exorcise my discomfort.
If you're in the mood for some uncanny reality, give "The Last Policeman" a try.
"Shakespeare's Counselor" is the final book in the Lily Bard series. I was surprised to find that I took great pleasure in this series. In some ways it is one long novel, charting Lily's journey from isolated, insomniac, night-walker, to a woman with a life that she has built through her strength, her integrity and finally by being courageous enough to allow herself to have something to lose.
The final book thankfully doesn't go down the path of unlikely happy endings. Bad things happen to Lily in this book and, at the end of it, she still has significant problems, but the book delivers credible growth for her and the people around her.
One of the ways this growth is achieved is that Lily enters therapy, with the Counselor of the title, to try to end the nightmares that rule her sleep. I was surprised at this. I'm not a fan of therapy. I'm with Willy Russel in changing Pschotherapist into Psycho The Rapist. I've never been convinced that the response to trauma should be a platitude-driven talking-tour of the route back to normalcy. I very much doubt that, after a significant trauma, normal is an option.
I was pleased to see that the therapy in the book worked less because of the skill of the counselor, than because the rape survivors in the group were willing to extend their trust and support to each other. There are some hard-to-take tales in therapy sessions. Sadly, none of them are difficult to believe. I was impressed that, even in therapy, Lily did not change her view that people are not naturally good and safety can only be obtained through vigilance and strength. Her counselor found the view bleak and wondered how Lily could live with it. I see it as a reasonable, fact-based conclusion, that provides a foundation for good choices.
The plot of "Shakespeare's Counselor" is a little complex, requiring some suspension of disbelief as the bad guys are not exactly run of the mill. The action is occasionally violent and brutal. The events in Lily's personal life add grief to an already tough situation and challenge Lily's definition of herself and her future.
By the end of the series, Lily has moved from loner cleaner, to an apprentice private detective with a husband and friends in a community that she now feels part of. Yet this is not a "Hallmark" sugar-sweet transformation. This book, even more than the rest of the series, is raised above the mundane by the authenticity of Lily's rage against what was done to her and the strength of her commitment to live her life to her own standards. It's a fine close to a series that I am sure I will read again.
I listened to the audiobook version of this series, performed by Julai Gibson. She did a wonderful job, not just in being "the voice of Lily Bard" but also in creating and sustaining voices for the other characters. She was the perfect choice for these books.
Melissa Olson has achieved something quite unique, she's added a brand new type of supernatural to the, by now normal, mix of vampires, werewolves and witches. Scarlett Bernard is a Null, she creates dead spots for magic. In her presence, vampires and werewolves become human and witches cannot cast spells.
This is a truly odd, negative, super power. It doesn't turn Scarlett into an apex predator but it does give her some protection from them. She lives in a niché where she can be used by the various super natural factions to clean up messes, usually deaths, without being a threat or being threatened. She is valuable because she helps keep the "Old World's" secrets.
At least, that's how we see the world at the start of the story.
The plot places, Scarlett in a situation where she has a deadline to prove she had no involvement in some gruesome killings or face execution. The twists and turns of the plot are perfect for building a picture of the supernatural world while making it satisfyingly difficult to figure out who is guilty of what.
I enjoyed the fact that Scarlett, because her powers are essentially negative, couldn't just use muscle or magic to solve her problems, she had to use her brains and rely on her friends. This made the whole story more engaging.
Circumstances have thrown Scarlett together with a freshly promoted plain-clothes LAPD officer, Jesse Cruz. He is new to the "Old World" and becomes the device through which much of the exposition is done. He is also a very moral person (hey, if you can accept that LA has vampires, werewolves and witches, then is a moral LAPD officer such a stretch).
I didn't like Scarlett very much at the start of the book. She seemed glib, superficial, numb as well as null and I didn't much care what happened to her. As the book progresses, two things change, Scarlett's back-story of trauma, guilt and exploitation is revealed and,partly in response to Jesse's reactions to the Old World and partly as she slowly realizes that she actually has some friends, Scarlett takes stock of her life and her attitudes and starts to make changes.
By the end of the book, I was interested in Scarlett and the world she lives in and ready for another instalment.
"Dead Spots" was an entertaining read that had some problems with pace and perhaps a little too much exposition, but which appealed to me because of its flashes of originality and the intelligence and pragmatism of Scarlett Bernard.
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